It Comes Down to the Comma

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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

It comes down to the comma.

I know it sounds strange but there's a particularly muscular way that Samuel Beckett uses commas. Not just a lazy punctuation mark to string together words or thoughts but an invitation to a deeper inner world; a mark signifying not just a shift in tone but at times a violent reversal: as if the second part of the sentence were battling the first: disagreeing, re-defining, re-positioning a thought.

When brought to life, either in the reader's mind or the actor's body, Beckett's writing feels a bit like a spastic sailboat tacking in the wind at each bit of punctuation - only finding grace through embracing the rhythm of the discord.

If you don't know what I'm talking about, check out Barry McGovern's masterful performance at the Kirk Douglas Theatre. Lucky Angeleno's will remember his Vladimir in the Gate Theater's stellar production of Waiting for Godot at UCLA. Here, he's taken three of Samuel Beckett's novels and boiled them down into a one-man show titled I'll Go On.

The texts for I'll Go On are from what's come to be called Beckett's trilogy: Molloy, Malone Dies and the The Unnameable. The trio written astride Waiting for Godot in the early fifties are arguably Beckett's most significant. While Mr. McGovern's performance more than speaks for itself, it's helpful to have a little context on the novels to appreciate the voyage. In broadest terms the novels are a series of inner monologues charting the course from the external to the internal; from wholeness to disintegration; from what we can recognize as a cryptic but traditional narrative towards something we've come to call Beckettian: devoid of plot but filled with an all too recognizable inner tumult.

Mr. McGovern's 90-minute two-act performance maps this same territory but translates it roughly as the journey from audience to actor. The piece begins with a vaudevillian curtain raiser with Mr. McGovern directly addressing and, in a way, diagnosing the audience. The bulk of the first act distills Molloy in all of its lewd, wonderful, and disturbing glory. It's played for us and in the familiar sense it's the most accessible. When you return from intermission the focus shifts inward. We lose, like the voices in the novels themselves, a connection to the outside. If you don't know the novels this can feel like a great loss. Mr. McGovern is so engaging as Molloy, we long for that same connection.

It's the shift from being a silent partner in the drama to being a stunned witness to Beckett's words and Mr. McGovern's virtuosity. By the time we're immersed in the run-on desperate struggle of The Unnameable, you can't help be struck by the actor's drive: his breathing, or said differently, his inspiration.

The title, I'll Go On comes from the final sentence of The Unnameable, a sentence that runs over 2000 words. It ends with "You must go on, I can't go on, I'll go on" - three worlds joined only by commas. Experiencing Barry McGovern embody this chaos shouldn't be missed.

I'll Go On plays at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City through February 9.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

Run time: 90 minutes with an intermission.

Banner image: Barry McGovern in I'll Go On at the Center Theatre Group/Kirk Douglas Theatre. Photo by Craig Schwartz